Communication Ethics book part for What is a Patent?. (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)
in Communication Ethics
It is well beyond the scope of this essay to go in depth into the history of patents, which itself can easily fill a book. If you are not familiar with patents, I recommend doing a Google search on "Patents" and "Patent history".
The incredibly brief summary is that patents extend protection to someone who discovers a process that does something, such as a process for manufacturing aspirin. For the period of the patent protection, nobody is allowed to use that method unless they come to some sort of agreement with the patent holder. After that, the patent becomes public knowlege and anybody can use it without penalty. It is a limited monopoly over a process granted by the government in the interests of both furthering progress by giving people economic incentives to do research (by allowing them to benefit from that research), and to benefit society by making sure the knowlege makes it back into the public domain (all patent filings are fully public).
In particular, I'd like to point out that initially, the idea that software could be patented was rejected, as there was no material process that could be patented. A pity this was not sustained, as we would not have the patent problem today.